|Chuck Barris on "The Gong Show"|
The Gong Show paralleled the Jimmy Carter presidency perfectly.
The 1970s were an incredible decade. That's not a compliment. Then again, let's see the glass as being half-full. Maybe our maker thinks it wise we have a pause sometimes, a pause in which we can just be thankful to be alive. Never mind we have a presidency unraveled in a pathetic, predictable cadence. Never mind the "pet rocks." Remember the 1970s version of "King Kong?" Remember the name of the petroleum company in the movie? It was "Petrox." Del Sarlette and I picked up on the humor immediately.
"Pet Rocks" were a frivolous distraction in that '70s decade. We would eventually get the "International Star Registry" which seemed like an extension. Get a star named for you. Our attention was grabbed by an assortment of things which really seemed harmless. But they also seemed pointless. The entertainment we consumed was not inspiring. We were entertained and we laughed along with stuff that seemed to diss our long-held high ideals. The attitude seemed to be "what's the use?"
One commentator has said that anything that could go wrong, did go wrong in the 1970s. Seems almost astrological or paranormal. But again, God himself might ordain such periods in American history. Jackie Gleason played a law enforcement figure that was absolutely created to be scorned. Clint Eastwood came out with his oddball "Bronco Billy" that had the exact same type of law enforcement character. These guys had large middle sections - what we used to call "beer bellies" - and they came from the Archie Bunker mold. This was the older end of the celebrated "generation gap" of the mid-20th Century in this great country. The oldsters watched Lawrence Welk. The kids sought to be hip. We watched "Happy Days" and "Kung Fu." We listened to Grand Funk Railroad and Uriah Heep. The Lawrence Walk aficionados might as well have been space aliens, such was the contrast.
Seriously, the generation gap was 100 percent real - no mythic aspect. I'm troubled as I recall it.
Television entertainment was handicapped by having to be homogeneous. No real "niche" programming yet, although there were some hints or signs of what was to come. Tom Snyder wasn't the best but he was the first. His "Tomorrow" show, beginning at the then-unthinkable hour of 12:00 (midnight), was a precursor. He was spontaneous much of the time. His show debuted in a more conventional way, with much "scripted" material, but then he fell into an informal format. It was refreshing.
Johnny Carson was in his prime. Johnny's show met a need, or it wouldn't have existed, but it was shallow beyond description. You couldn't expect to learn anything watching that show. And while we're on that subject, let's get back to the Gong Show. Truly this was a time capsule type of show representing the 1970s. It was farce, irreverence and tripe all for their own sake. It had all the nobility of picking your nose.
Young people of today would say "well, why did we watch it?" Look, logic has nothing to do with understanding the bell bottom decade. It was something we all just experienced. We got through it just as we knew we would. Our higher ideals returned. True talent shows would get traction.
The Gong Show only had a premise of being a talent show. The show reflected all the mendacity of the 1970s. We were beleaguered by our failure in the Viet Nam War. We had taken for granted that we would win wars. Kids grew up in the '60s watching the "Combat!" TV series. Surely our gallant GIs would install virtue all over the globe, right? We did it in the '40s. In the present day we send our troops to face those Mongol hordes or whoever they are.
Sobering events as backdrop
In the '70s we saw the air go out of the balloon of both Viet Nam and the Nixon presidency. Economic inflation was pernicious. We were dazed. We marked time. We assumed America could still be a great place. We just needed some time to get on our feet again, to pound our chest. In the '70s we were just examining our naval. The Gong Show was on the level of examining our naval. It was the brainchild of Chuck Barris. Chuck is as much a symbol of the '70s as Euell Gibbons (the guy who did those Grape Nuts commercials, saying the cereal reminded him of "wild hickory nuts").
Legend has it that Barris first envisioned a serious tone with this "talent show." I don't buy that. I think the TV whiz saw potential more or less immediately in the pathos component - the idea that bad acts were a hoot. I'm reminded of Monday Night Football and its success. There's another 1970s phenomenon. I have read that Monday Night Football got much of its success from being able to "make a bad game hip." We see none of that today. Fox Sports North tries putting a totally positive sheen on everything. Even the Timberwolves. This approach wouldn't pass muster with the likes of Patrick Reusse. Reusse is a throwback. Sportswriters once itched to be able to publicly mock struggling teams.
The Gong Show and American Idol are as different as Superman and Bizzarro. The analogy is really quite spot-on. A judge panel would use a gong to send the signal that an act was so bad, it had to stop. The public really caught on. Even our nursing home in Morris did an annual takeoff on the Gong Show.
We ate up the Gong Show and the Match Game. The competition seemed rather incidental in both. The Match Game panel was once asked to fill in the blank in "half-blank." A prevailing response was "half-drunk." Years later I heard a sociologist comment on that, on a C-Span show. He said Match Game answers were like a window to our culture at the time. Would "half-drunk" be the prevailing answer today? We were all quite amused by inebriated humor then. Young people got this horrible message that alcoholic drinks were fashionable. Many probably ended up with DWIs that had long-lasting consequences for them.
Alcohol and cigarettes were a release mechanism for men who fought in WWII. Our society gave them a pass for such vices. Such vices should have passed after these gallant souls headed into the sunset. I remember in 1974 how Olympia Beer came to Minnesota. We thought it was a big deal. "Hello Minnesota" was the company's catch line for a time. Why did we pay any attention? Could we have really distinguished the taste of this beer from any other? Of course not.
Jaye P. Morgan was the most popular panelist on the Gong Show. Her trademark? She emitted a string of double-entendres. She supposedly had once been a popular singer. During her Gong Show heyday she was a guest on the Muppet Show once. I was struck by how unimpressive her singing voice was. Yes, age can take a toll on one's ability to carry a tune.
Barris was a magnet for attention as the offbeat emcee. Manic energy? To say the least. He'd intone a sarcastic intro for an act, remember? "I really like this next act, but then again, I like botulism." We'd see Barris with his goofy hat pulled over his eyes.
Gong Show "regulars" win a following
The show developed with some "acts" that weren't really acts, they were part of the regular routine on the show. Such as, "The Unknown Comic," bag over his head. A thin gimmick? Of course, but this seemed to feed the appeal, just like those bad games on Monday Night Football.
Larry Spencer came forward to sing an elementary call-and-response song, telling us he was going to "play his trumpet" (or any other instrument), except he would never play it. Ah repitition, as in Ed McMahon saying "I hold in my hand the last envelope." (Audience cheers.)
Who can forget "Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine?" Del Sarlette reminds me that Gene didn't appear in the final year of the show - evidently he was just a stage hand whose union guidelines didn't allow for performance. Actually I think Barris had an agenda of just trying to show that "common" employees at the show's headquarters could get ratings just as good as the union-affiliated performers. He was "trying to show them up," as it were, and it worked.
"Scarlett and Rhett" reportedly just worked in the wardrobe department. "Oh Rhett Butler, you can't say that on television." Then Rhett would say: "Well, Scarlett, can I say this?" And for several seconds we'd hear the bleeping censor sound. Ah, this is what made us laugh in the 1970s. "Matt Idol" would come out and sort of pretend to sing, while the audience was all coached on how to just go absolutely wild, Beatlemania-style.
Gene Patton as "Gene Gene" would dance to "Jumpin' at the Woodside," a big band classic. Virtually everyone would join in dancing. When all else failed in the 1970s, we could dance.
Oh, and Gene has just recently left us for that stage in the sky. Gene Patton RIP. Here's the article from the Hollywood Reporter:
Pushing the envelope? Most certainly
The act that really took the cake, or should I say popsicles, was "The Popsicle Twins." A whole exhibit in a TV museum should be devoted to this: two quite innocent looking girls coming out to - ahem - consume popsicles. It was done in a quite suggestive way while the audience went wild. Barris doubted the act would survive the censors. Eureka, it did, at least to an extent. The horrified network brass deleted the bit from its West Coast feed. Lest you be disbelieving about this act, click on the link below to view from YouTube.
I have read that Ike's Chicken Shack of the Browns Valley MN area could never come back today. The Gong Show likewise seems like a fossilized insect in amber. It rests in place in the 1970s along with "Smokey and the Bandit," Studio 54 and the spinning ball of light at disco dance floors. I remember dancing at the Persian Club in St. Cloud, surrounded by all the famous trappings of disco. There are worse pastimes.
But all in all, we need to stretch to find justification for all we sought and experienced in the '70s. Time moved like molasses. We learned to accept that. Eventually the negative residue of the '70s, chiefly Watergate and the Viet Nam debacle, got swept aside, to where in the go-go '90s, we absolutely brimmed with optimism. It was a night and day difference.
Remember how Jimmy Carter tried to rescue the hostages in Iran? The equipment broke down. A perfectly symbolic event of the '70s. Our armed forces can spend money on musical groups touring to promote themselves, but our equipment breaks down for an essential rescue.
Remember how the Comet Kohoutek was supposed to turn night into day, such would be its overwhelming brightness? That scenario had a '70s finish to it also: the comet barely appeared as a weak speck, perhaps requiring a telescope even. Oh, and wasn't there a scientist announcing he had photos of the Loch Ness Monster? The photos looked like mud and algae.
Unlikely icon of decade: Gibbons
Then there was Euell Gibbons, the senior citizen expert on getting by in the wild, eating wild things. He touted a breakfast cereal. Johnny Carson made hay with jokes about him. Eventually Gibbons appeared on Johnny's show. Legend has it the commercials had to be yanked from the air because kids were going outside and experimenting with eating wild things. So, Gibbons went the way of the Three Stooges eye poke. Kids would emulate. I suspect there's a reason we haven't seen a sequel to the Three Stooges movie of the recent past. The moviemakers fear lawsuits in the wake of kids hitting each other on the head with a hammer.
Times change. We cannot predict the future. A '70s-like decade could come along again. I'll be ready. Ready to dance like "Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine." But, not so ready for a Burt Reynolds type wearing a cowboy hat.
Addendum: Remember Chuck saying "take it away Tampa Bay?" Was that a reference to the football team? Also, remember him talking about "raccoon on wheat toast," with the illustration of a raccoon's tail protruding from a couple slices of bread? Only on the Gong Show, a surreal but endearing (in a weird way) world.